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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...




New Identities

Chi Alpha's Spirit-led ministry reaches California students


By John W. Kennedy
Sept. 28, 2014

Walking in the quadrangle at Modesto (Calif.) Junior College his first week on campus, Daniel Rodriguez became intrigued at the sight of a “free spiritual readings” booth.

The spiritually hungry Rodriguez had a history of consulting psychics and tarot card readers for advice. For Rodriguez, Mexican-American and Native American family gang members served as role models.

Those tending the booth, students from Chi Alpha, the Assemblies of God ministry on secular college and university campuses, immediately explained that they represented Jesus Christ and wanted to pray for Rodriguez to see what God had in store for him. A student told Rodriguez she had a word from the Lord about Rodriguez’s sister.

“It was specific and detailed and accurate,” remembers Rodriguez, 22. After 90 minutes of spiritual insights, a counselor asked Rodriguez if any reason existed why he shouldn’t give his life to Christ. Rodriguez had no objections.

In the three years since, Rodriguez has led three siblings and his mother to faith in Jesus. Today, Rodriguez is on a student ministry team and playing guitar during Chi Alpha worship services.

The journey for Rodriguez is fairly typical on the six campuses in three counties that comprise the Central Valley Chi Alpha along the Route 99 corridor. Besides Modesto Junior College, Chi Alpha teams are active at the University of California, Merced; Merced College; Fresno State; Fresno City College; and California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock.

The Chi Alpha “free spiritual readings” feature students who explain Scriptures to and offer prayers with non-Christians. Kids experiencing trials and heartaches stop by, as well as those who are simply curious.

The outreaches are dependent on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Staff and students pray extensively about their encounters beforehand, and often receive words of wisdom or knowledge for those who stop by.

Students who visit a booth or tent sometimes are healed physically, or have a dream interpreted. Before a student departs, he or she is always asked if there is any reason why a commitment to follow Jesus shouldn’t be made immediately. During the 2013-14 school year, Central Valley Chi Alpha experienced 120 salvation decisions and 150 physical healings.

“When they come to Christ through spiritual gifts, they become operational in those gifts,” says Jeremy Anderson, now in his 10th year as director of Central Valley Chi Alpha. “We didn’t plan to grow this way; it just happened under God’s direction. We trust in the Holy Spirit’s anointing more than my ability to persuade.”

As a teenager, Anderson affiliated with a Bay Area gang. At 17, he plotted to kill a young man who had raped Anderson’s ex-girlfriend. On the evening he planned to carry out the deed, Anderson instead acquiesced to a dinner invitation from his praying grandparents.

Anderson reluctantly went along with his grandparents to ARCO Arena to hear a speaker they vaguely described as famous. That night in 1995, at the invitation of evangelist Billy Graham, Anderson accepted Jesus as his Savior.

“I had never tried Jesus, I never understood the gospel,” Anderson says. “I got saved in more than one way. I would have ended up in prison or dead if I didn’t go to the revival, because I would have killed that guy.”

Anderson became Chi Alpha director of the Turlock campus after serving on staff four years. Subsequently, he has overseen planting outreaches on five other campuses. He met his wife, Debora, during his intern year in Turlock. The bubbly 31-year-old Debora is of Portuguese descent. The couple wed a decade ago.

When Anderson took over as director, no minority students attended Chi Alpha meetings. Now whites are the minority.

“Early on we were very intentional about genuinely embracing students from other nations,” Anderson says.

The ministry is subleasing three units from the Miracle Foundation to provide discounted housing for international students. Foreign students are more likely to become Christians if they live in the same complex as Christians, Anderson maintains.

Many students come to the various Valley campuses from such diverse nations as Saudi Arabia, Japan and India because of the comparatively low educational costs.

George Leiva is an international student who was born in Peru and raised in Zambia. He typed “colleges and universities in America” into a Google search, and “Modesto” popped up. That’s where Leiva, 19, began studying business administration.

Initially, Leiva says partying and following the wrong crowd occupied much of his free time.

Last September life changed for Leiva as he walked across campus and saw a student placidly strumming a guitar. In an ensuing conversation, Leiva learned the lyrics of the song referred to Jesus. The guitar player invited Leiva to a Chi Alpha meeting.

Other students began praying for Leiva immediately after he entered the gathering. The next day he was filled with the Holy Spirit.

When he came to college, Leiva hoped his education would be the pathway to a lucrative career; now his heart is focused on evangelism. As with many Chi Alpha students, Leiva is more absorbed with ministry goals than studies.


LIFE IN COMMUNITY

At Cal State Stanislaus in Turlock, Chi Alpha leases a building that has room for meetings and offices across the street from the main campus entrance. The fee charged by the Miracle Foundation is $1 a year because of the ministry’s commitment to international students.

There aren’t any fog machines or videogames in the Chi Alpha campus center because Anderson doesn’t believe such diversions deepen a person’s relationship with God. “The net you catch them with is the net you keep them with,” is his catchphrase.

“We don’t want to attract people by entertainment,” says the even-keeled Anderson. “We want the presence of God to attract them.”

Initially, Anderson advocated one-on-one discipleship. He now finds group training more time effective and practical in equipping new Christians.

Growth has transpired, especially in the past two years, because of gender-separated small groups called companies where transparency and disciple-making are expected. About 145 attend each week.

“Small groups are the overflow of everything we do,” says 24-year-old Eriq Truitt, who leads men’s small groups in Merced. “Living life together and pursuing the Lord together is foundational.”

Most students are either from California or overseas. The majority of 11 staff members are ministering at one of the Central Valley schools they once attended.

Bendu Favor Ndama is a slender 27-year-old with a broad smile that radiates joy. Ndama, who grew up in Liberia, leads worship and helps international students adjust to the U.S. She appreciates how the Andersons empower students to walk in their spiritual giftings.

“Jeremy and Debora let students figure out their ministry niche,” Ndama says. “They teach a culture of walking in the Spirit wherever they are and in whatever they do.”

Jamil and Vanessa Stell have been on staff for six years while married the past four. They are representative of the diverse student body. Jamil, who conducts evangelism outreaches, is black, while Vanessa is of Filipino and Mexican heritage.

The loquacious Jamil, 28, says he sees Anderson as his spiritual father, and the Andersons’ marriage has been a model for him to follow.

Openness about past mistakes is a hallmark of both the large meetings and small group gatherings. The Stells shared their personal journey during a recent Friday night service at Cal State Stanislaus in Turlock. Both expressed regrets for losing their virginity to others at 15 when they didn’t walk with the Lord. They knew many in the audience could relate.

The Stells also told how it’s possible to start anew and live a renewed pure life for one’s future spouse. Jamil proposed on their first date, but the couple didn’t kiss until their wedding.

The animated Vanessa, 27, read 2 Timothy 2:21: “ If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work” (NLT).


TRANSPARENCY ABOUNDS

Certainly being part of Chi Alpha requires a hefty dose of authenticity, as well as vulnerability. Facades aren’t allowed. Framed images and mini biographies of 10 students adorn one wall of the meeting room, summarizing the stark realities of past struggles with drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, drug dealing, homelessness, pornography addiction, and abortion. Testimonies wrap up with how the students found hope in Jesus.

Being transparent in church is one thing, but remarkably the same framed testimonies are displayed in various other spots around campus — not to shock, but to evangelize. They are open invitations to those searching for genuineness to become part of the group.

Likewise, at certain venues on campus, Chi Alpha students speak at open-air outreaches nicknamed “I am your sign.” In these amplified testimonies, students reveal their deep, dark secrets — life as it used to be — before culminating with how they found freedom in Christ.

At a recent Friday night gathering in Turlock, worship punctuated by Holy Spirit-themed songs continued for an hour. The crowd, mostly ethnic minorities, featured students bouncing, clapping, shouting, weeping, whooping, kneeling, dancing and twirling — all with complete abandon.

Also at the weekly student gathering, Jasmine Taylor stood to recite a 7-minute poem from memory of why she is waiting for a godly man as a husband. Taylor spent six months crafting the spoken word after she vowed to the Lord not to pursue an intimate relationship for a year and a half.

The composition, in essence an ode to Taylor’s future husband, acknowledges that she doesn’t need to know his identity before she starts living for him. Taylor, 23, is a staff volunteer after spending two years as a student in Chi Alpha and graduating with a psychology degree.

Taylor says women in her small group company enabled her to act genuinely for the first time. Other women mentored Taylor, helping her find relief from the guilt and shame from three abortions she had kept quiet. One of the posters on the wall features Taylor. Her formerly private torments are now courageously on display in hopes that others will be drawn to the Lord.

“I never understood before that Jesus desires a personal relationship with me,” Taylor says. “Chi Alpha people loved me through healing and showed how the Lord has forgiven me.”

Influenced by many atheist and agnostic friends, UC Merced student Marlon Hernandez stopped going to church at 16. In part, Hernandez gave up believing in God because his mother died when he was 4 and his brother died from a gunshot wound in a drug deal gone awry seven years later.

Hernandez, whose family came from Honduras, started smoking marijuana, became a drug dealer, and hooked up with prostitutes as a way to escape the confusing reality he faced. Ultimately, he found drugs, wealth and sex unsatisfying. Remembering testimonies of people being healed during his Pentecostal youth, Hernandez tearfully offered a prayer of desperation to the Lord.

The next morning as he planned to smoke marijuana, as he routinely did every day when he awoke, Hernandez says he heard the Holy Spirit tell him not to light up.

“The Lord became my strength,” recalls Hernandez, 22. “I became a new creation and distanced myself from certain people and places.” 

Now Hernandez leads a small group of 20 men who trust him.

Clearly Anderson has allowed other staff and students to lead certain areas of ministry. He doesn’t feel the need to micromanage outreaches on every campus.

“If we aren’t empowering students, we aren’t ministering on the campus,” Anderson says.


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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